Yellow Jackets take on the Golden Gophers in Detroit in head coach Paul Johnson's final game
The Quick Lane Bowl will mark the end of an era for Georgia Tech as head coach Paul Johnson will lead his Yellow Jackets one final time against Minnesota. Johnson announced his decision to retire earlier this month after 11 seasons in Atlanta, and 22 overall as a head coach. He is 82-59 at Georgia Tech with one ACC championship (2009) and four division titles, and 189-58 overall, including two national titles (1999, 2000) while coaching FCS (then Division I-AA) program Georgia Southern. Johnson also spent six seasons at Navy.
The Yellow Jackets (7-5, 5-3 ACC) will make their ninth bowl appearance under Johnson, who brought his well-known and usually productive triple-option offense with him to Atlanta in 2008. After the bowl game, former Temple head coach Geoff Collins will take over and he's expected to introduce a more conventional offense, among other changes.
For the Golden Gophers (6-6, 3-6 Big Ten) this marks the first bowl game in head coach P.J. Fleck's two-year tenure. After enduring a four-game losing streak to open Big Ten play, Minnesota won three of its last five, including impressive upsets of Purdue and Wisconsin to become bowl eligible. Georgia Tech also got off to a slow start before surging late, winning its last four ACC games to finish second in the Coastal Division.
Besides the coaching experience discrepancy (Johnson's 22 years as head coach vs. Fleck's six), this also is a matchup of contrasting styles. The Yellow Jackets like to run the ball down opponents' throats while the Gophers run a version of the spread offense that doesn't put up the same gaudy statistics as some other schools in the country.
The bigger key for Minnesota is how its defense holds up against the nation's No. 1 rushing offense. Georgia Tech averages 334.9 rushing yards per game while the Gophers' offense is producing 378.6 total yards per contest. Minnesota is giving up a respectable 170.7 rushing yards per game, but the Gophers have been run over by some teams, namely Illinois (430 yards) and Nebraska (383). They lost those two games by a combined 49 points.
The Yellow Jackets will need to run the ball as their defense is giving up 29 points per game. Georgia Tech doesn't generate much pressure (14 sacks) or create turnovers (20 takeaways), so even though Johnson is known as an offensive-minded coach, his final game could come down to if his team is able to make more stops on defense.
Quick Lane Bowl: Minnesota (6-6) vs. Georgia Tech (7-5)
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 26 at 5:15 p.m. ET
Where: Ford Field (Detroit)
Spread: Georgia Tech -5
Three Things to Watch
1. First-ever meeting between two teams
Despite the long history of these two programs, Minnesota and Georgia Tech have never played each other until now. Both have had plenty of matchups against current teams from the others' conference. The Gophers are 14-7 all-time vs. ACC teams, the last matchup against Syracuse in the 2013 Texas Bowl. The Yellow Jackets are 23-13 against Big Ten competition but haven't faced a team from the conference since losing to Iowa in the Orange Bowl to end their 2009 season.
Overall, the current membership of the Big Ten is 85-66-2 against ACC teams, but the ACC has a 19-14 advantage in bowl games. The Big Ten has won six of the past seven meetings between the two Power 5 conferences. Will this trend continue in Detroit or can Georgia Tech send its head coach off into the sunset with a rare victory over the B1G?
2. Who starts at quarterback for Minnesota?
Whether it’s been injuries, inconsistent play, or a combination of both, Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck has rotated a pair of freshmen under center this season. Whether it's been Zack Annexstad (started the first seven games) or Tanner Morgan (eight games, six starts), the results have been similar. Annexstad has 1,277 passing yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing 51 percent of his passes. Morgan has been more accurate (59 percent completion rate) with more yards (1,269) through the air to go along with seven touchdowns and six picks.
Whoever is under center has a pair of impressive targets to throw to in Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman. Johnson, a junior, was named first-team All-Big Ten by the media after finishing second in the conference in the regular season with 74 catches for 1,112 yards and he also had 10 touchdowns. Bateman, a freshman, was second on the team with 49 catches for 670 yards and six scores.
Minnesota will try and take advantage of a Georgia Tech defense that is giving up nearly 220 passing yards per game and has surrendered 22 touchdowns compared to just 12 interceptions.
3. Yellow Jackets' four-headed monster
Paul Johnson-coached teams are known for one thing – running the football. And this Georgia Tech is certainly no different, as it leads the nation in rushing at 335 yards per game. With so many attempts (701, fourth in the country) it should not be surprising that seven different Yellow Jackets have already logged at least 40 carries this season. The main ball carriers are quarterbacks TaQuon Marshall and Tobias Oliver, along with running backs Jordan Mason and Jerry Howard. Those four have combined for 2,904 rushing yards and 35 of the team's 45 rushing touchdowns.
Marshall and Oliver also have combined to complete 50 of 113 pass attempts (44.2 percent) for 900 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions (all thrown by Marshall). Minnesota's defense knows that Georgia Tech will run the ball and the focus will be on trying to slow these four guys down. It won't be easy, as the Yellow Jackets' statistics show, but at least the Gophers have a good idea of who they will need to tackle.
Georgia Tech's offense is nearly impossible to stop, much less slow down. The Yellow Jackets have scored 144 points in their last four victories while Minnesota has allowed almost as many points (135) in its last five games. Georgia Tech's defense is vulnerable but should get an assist due to the Golden Gophers' inconsistency on offense and uncertainty at quarterback. The Yellow Jackets finished the regular season better than Minnesota and will definitely be motivated with this being Paul Johnson's final game as head coach. The Gophers will put up a fight, but Georgia Tech sends Johnson off into retirement with one last "W."
Prediction: Georgia Tech 28, Minnesota 27
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.